Tired person hidden behind a pile of books, suffering back pain

What happens when the osteopath comes down with acute low back pain?

Having had a particularly sedentary and stressful Summer trying to finish my Master’s dissertation and thinking about a PhD, I had put my meditation and yoga practice on the back burner. The standing desk that I had spent over £200 on did not get used, as I was furiously typing away on my laptop trying to finish a project that I had put my life and soul into. I did not even have time to think about alternating my work position, which I often advise my patients to do to avoid back pain. I was too busy with my work flow and feared that if I stopped to fold out my desk I would lose precious thinking time and never retrieve my train of thought. So I ignored my left hip that had started to niggle me and kept working.

For a few weeks I lived off coffee and cheese sandwiches and my husband and son lived off take-aways and ready-meals. I was getting up at 4 am to work until 9 pm non-stop. I was also going through hormonal fluctuations that are normal for a woman my age and one of the symptoms is insomnia. I was making the most of it.

It took me well over three weeks to recover from finishing and submitting my dissertation. It was not a smooth run and there were some hiccups on the way and I had to pull a couple of all-nighters. At the same time my son had started 6th Form. He has Special Educational Needs, so that did not go smoothly either. I dedicated myself to my recovery from this stressful period with meditation, yoga, a healthier diet, socialising with friends and seeing my osteopath.

Then I went on a weekend course that required me to sit on a chair for several hours at a time. The build up of tension was not helped by a stressful exchange with a colleague on WhatsApp about swapping clinic hours. In the end my left hip was quite painful and I was limping back to the tube. I was also getting a bit of lower back pain. My mind was filled with thoughts that it was probably colon cancer and that I did not have long to live. I started thinking about the tunes that I wanted played at my funeral. Noticing my own catastrophising tendencies, I thought that the pain would probably go away if I did some Yin yoga. Keep moving is the advice, right. I had heard that Yin yoga, where you maintain postures for a prolonged period, would be restorative. On my yoga app it said that it was good when you felt ‘overwhelmed’. What could possibly go wrong?

As I was doing an extreme version of ‘cobra’, with my forearms on a bolster and the yoga teacher in the app saying in a gentle knowing voice that it was a great posture to open up the ‘heart chakra’, I heard my osteopath’s words in the back of my head ‘be careful when doing yoga at the moment’. Of course, I did not listen to my osteopath, I mean, who does? But as I was trying to unstick myself from this extreme back extension posture by folding over my legs in a forward bend, I thought ‘Maria, you stupid cow…!’. I was a bit sore getting up from that yoga session to say the least.

Off we went on holiday to Spain. I was feeling a bit fragile and tried to avoid any heavy lifting but was stretching out whenever possible because that felt nice, although I was still in pain. On the first day, it was raining heavily so nothing else to do but to have a nice nap.

When I woke up I was unable to get out of bed. My pelvis felt like a millstone and my brain was simply not connecting with my muscles. The feeling was so alien yet so familiar, because as an osteopath I have seen hundreds of people coming to see me and reporting exactly the same. Having lectured my patients on movement not necessarily meaning harm, and thinking that this inability to get out of bed was probably due to fear, I burst out laughing which just made the pain worse. Not one to shy away from new experiences I thought, ‘this is interesting’. Having thought for a bit how best to get out of bed I engaged my abdominals and used the strength of my arms to get up.

I was not standing straight but slightly stooped forwards. Oh…

I ignored my pain signals and kept on moving, kept on stretching. It did ease things but I was even getting a lot of sharp pain in my neck. I asked my mum for a hot water bottle. My stepdad, a man not unfamiliar with back pain and osteopathy, told me that ice was much better. I said ‘yes, that’s what I keep telling my patients, but right now I want a hot water bottle and don’t tell me what to do!’. Back pain makes you really grouchy and snappy.

My mum did not have a hot water bottle so we went to the pharmacy. Next door to the pharmacy was a clinic of physiotherapists and osteopaths. I went straight into the pharmacy and asked for co-codemol. The pharmacist told me that in Spain you can’t get anything with codeine in it without a prescription, but she offered me paracetamol. I paid for the hot water bottle and walked back past the osteopathy clinic, thinking that perhaps I should see a GP who could prescribe me some of that strong stuff that makes the pain go away immediately. I was not in the mood to engage with another osteopath telling me how I ended up like this. I was very aware how I ended up like this, I saw it coming but ignored the warning signs.

It has now been three days and the pain is a lot better. I can tentatively get myself in and out of a car without too much trouble, but I do feel like I am 90 years old. I have an appointment with my own osteopath next week. I will return to my ‘recovery’ programme and this time I will listen to her advice, but most importantly I will listen to my body.

Acute low back pain is usually self-limiting. Many people have these episodes without ever seeing an osteopath and it resolves after a few days. Occasionally we can feel it building up and we seek help. I should have seen my own osteopath sooner, but I was too busy hoping that it would go away on its own, but it didn’t.

Like all mental and physical states, pain is transient. It goes away eventually until it doesn’t, and that is a problem we call chronic pain, which is a different story. For now, I’m strangely grateful for my pain experience because it’s given me insight into how some of my patients feel, but also taught me that I too have my limits.

I will pay more attention to myself and my body in the future. Perhaps next time even check what level Yin yoga I’m doing, because as it turned out it was for advanced practitioners and a bit like going down a black slope with one ski. You live and learn.

 

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Maria Larrain

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